Norfolk wherry

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The Norfolk wherry is a type of boat on The Broads in Norfolk, England. Three main types were developed over its life, all featuring the distinctive gaff rig with a single, high-peaked sail and the mast stepped well forward.

Before wherries, there was the Norfolk Keel, a square rigged, transom sterned clinker-built boat, around 54 feet by 14 feet, and able to carry 30 tons of goods. The keel had been built since the Middle Ages and the design probably went back to the Viking invasion. After 1800, the Norfolk Keel (or 'keel wherry') disappeared, partly because a wherry could be sailed with fewer crew, and it had limited manoeuvrability and lacked speed.

The Trading Wherry developed from the Keel. It is double-ended, its hull painted black with a white nose to aid visibility after dusk. Most trading wherries were clinker-built, but Albion, surviving today, was the sole example to be carvel-built. They carry a gaff rig, the sail historically also black from being treated with a mixture of tar and fish oil to protect it from the elements. The mast tops and wind vanes were often painted or shaped (respectively) to identify the wherry's owner - a traditional design is a Jenny Morgan, after a folk song character. Sizes varied, but many of these vessels would carry around 25 tons of goods. Wherries were able to reach larger boats just off the coast at Great Yarmouth or Lowestoft and take their cargoes off to be transported inland through the broads and rivers. The last trading wherry, Ella, was built in 1912.

The Pleasure Wherry evolved as railways took on the cargo business that had supported the traders. Enterprising owners realised that conversion to carry passengers was a way to replace the lost income, especially as the Broads were at the same time being discovered as a destination for tourism and recreation. Early examples simply featured hammocks and a stove in the hold of a trader, but boatbuilders soon began to make craft specifically for pleasure sailing and holidays, using the same hull and rig design but incorporating living quarters instead of a cargo hold. Some were fitted out to a very high standard indeed; for example, Hathor, built for the Colman family (of mustard fame), features highly detailed marquetry in Egyptian designs below decks.

For some holidaymakers, the distinction between the working boats and pleasure wherries was not strong enough, and the sleeker and more genteel Wherry Yacht was developed. The main distinguishing features are a smooth, white yacht-like hull and a large counter-stern providing a quiet seating area away from the sail winch and any quanting activity.

Wherries came in different sizes, according to the river they used. The North Walsham & Dilham Canal Wherry was max. 50' x 12' x 3' 6". The River Ant Wherry was 50' x 12' max. The River Bure Wherry was 54' x 12' 8", but for the Aylsham Navigation, i.e. the upper reaches of the Bure, the boats had to be 12' 6" x 3' 6" maximum.

On the southern Broads, steam wherries were used. The River Waveney Wherry was 70' x 16' max.

The mast is pivoted with a large counterbalance weight at the bottom. This enables the wherry to lower the mast for passing under bridges. The mast can be dropped, the wherry continues forward under its momentum and the mast is raised again on the far side by the crew of two. If there is no wind, or for manoeuvring quant poles are used to push the wherry.

A special wherry wheelbarrow was used to unload cargo, e.g. stone, from the wherries. It was made from wood and strengthened with iron bands. It had no legs, therefore it could be rested on the 11-inch wide planks on the side of the wherry.

All types of wherry eventually became uneconomic to run, but a small number has been restored and can be seen sailing up and down the rivers and broads today.

  • Albion - trading wherry Suffolk built
  • Maud - trading wherry
  • Solace - pleasure wherry
  • Hathor -pleasure wherry
  • Ardea - pleasure wherry (returned to Norfolk in October 2005 after spending more than 40 years in Paris as a houseboat)
  • Olive - wherry yacht
  • Norada - wherry yacht
  • White Moth - wherry yacht

Images of wherries can be seen on many pub signs and village signs. There is also a mosaic of a wherry at North Walsham, part of a special monument commemorating the Millennium celebrations.

Suggested Reading

  • Black Sailed Traders - Roy Clark.
  • Wherries and Waterways - Robert Malster.
  • Albion; the Story of the Norfolk Trading Wherry - Martin Kirby/Norfolk Wherry Trust.

External links